The ending of 'Destiny 2' shows just how hard major games jump the shark as a matter of course.
All images courtesy Activision
This piece contains spoilers for Destiny 2's single player campaign.
Something incredibly strange happens at the end of Destiny 2. You’ve just spent the entire game fighting against Dominus Ghaul and his Red Legion for control of The Traveler, a giant magical orb, and its Light that powers the heroes of the Destiny franchise. You’ve been traveling the solar system collecting allies for this final mission, and you’re in the final stages of the plan. There is, of course, a boss fight where you shoot Ghaul in his face for fifteen solid minutes, and it isn’t a very complicated thing. He dies, like all big bad bosses die, and then the weird thing happens.
We’re shown a prerendered cutscene in which Dominus’s lifeless body quivers. A beam of light shoots out of it, traveling up into the sky, and it detonates like a languid firework. Liquid wings spurt outward, and then the likeness of Dominus Ghaul appears. He unfolds in space, made of pure Light, looking like he’s made of melted candle wax. He’s enormous, much bigger than any figure we’ve seen in either Destiny game, and he starts spouting archvillain dialogue. “I am immortal! A god! You have failed! Witness the dawning of a new age!” As soon as he is finished, the cracked orb of the Traveler explodes and annihilates him. Roll credits.
It doesn’t make much sense, and not even the most dedicated of fan threads and videos seem very interested in really figuring out what’s going on there. I think that Dominus Ghaul’s gigantic, liquid body is a symptom of a larger problem within game production: Blockbuster video games always need to escalate beyond what they have already done.
Destiny 2’s plot is the perfect example of narrative escalation. First, the Guardians are reduced to nothing. Dominus Ghaul steals their superpowers and turns them into mere humans. From the underdog position, they can build themselves up. They get a little piece of the Light back, just a little tiny bit of superpower, and with that they hop from planet to planet recruiting their allies and making their team bigger. Then it looks like the sun might be destroyed, so a more and more grand mission to steal key codes and a space ship ensues. Finally, the player is able to blow up the machine that was meant to destroy the sun, but wait! Dominus Ghaul has finally dominated the Traveler!
The reason that Dominus Ghaul has to turn into a literal giant monster at the end of the game is that the previous mission ended with us stopping a machine that was going to blow up the sun. What could be bigger than that? Certainly not some person who’s barely taller than the player? What’s his superpower, anyway? He can glow? Like the ending of The Path of Neo, the escalating narrative can only escape by going up in scale and threat level. You thought the sun was in danger? Now the entire galaxy is going to be crushed beneath the weight of Ghaul’s “new age.”
The developers of Destiny 2 know this doesn’t work from a gameplay perspective, so they don’t bother with it. This is an easy place to have the Traveler intervene and to usher in a different era of Guardian / Traveler relations, so they take the opportunity and eliminate Ghaul. But that doesn’t change the fact that, narratively, this needs to happen. The stakes need to get higher. We have to see a giant kaiju Ghaul so that we know that things could be so much worse.
This is by no means unique to this game. It’s screenwriting common sense in the age of the blockbuster. Film and television constantly chase new areas of expansion and escalation, and the term “jumping the shark” is one of the ways we’ve come to easily identify undeserved escalations in those media. The Mass Effect franchise, with its singular villain, then its spaceship villain, and then its entire civilization of spaceship villains performs this work masterfully, and The Witcher’s movement from local to regional to national politics over the course of three games does similar work of scaling and adjusting the concerns of its plot to bigger and better targets.
Those games also cost a lot of money to make. The game industry pays a premium in monetary and labor costs, much of it squeezed from overtime, uncompensated, and stressed-out labor, for this escalation. The Witcher games, for example, underwent some massive transitions in order to scale itself up from where it was originally to where it needed to be in the end. To get to the national scale, the world of The Witcher 3 had to become bigger, more open, more complicated, and seamlessly navigable. To be able to go anywhere and respond to anything (which is what the biggest narrative threats demand), the design of a game has to change significantly. After all, the threats of that game become so important that Geralt travels to multiple worlds. It’s a feat of design and game creation.
In the face of that industrial demand for the next bigger and better thing, which the industry believes it needs to generate to get consumers excited, there is always escalation of every kind. More abilities, more subclasses, more ways to engage with the game. More internal and external economic abilities, whether it’s in-game item trading or lootboxes. More opportunities to get lost within this world, this narrative, and these characters. More chances to believe that this next thing you do, whatever it is, is truly the greatest thing the game has to offer.
This is, at least in part, an aspect of the boom and bust nature of the video game industry. Creating bigger worlds with more extensive narratives generates opportunities for hiring more staff, but when that no longer drives customers the way it did (or when lines of economic investment simply need to be abandoned), a company might end up laying off a quarter of its employees. In other cases, it might simply be that the draw of escalation, from systemic complexity to narrative control, might overwhelm a storied studio’s ability to conduct itself in a way that keeps the faith with its publisher.
The weirdness of Ghaul’s giant candlewax body, and its subsequent explosion, is a symptom of both standard screenwriting practice and the desires of the video game industry. You cannot simply build toward an ending. In this world, we have to accelerate toward one, and sometimes it makes for engaging experiences. Other times, it spirals out into disaster. And somethings, like in the case of Destiny 2, it makes for a jarring moment where a 300-foot-tall screaming monster explodes.